In comments to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on 18 September, Mandelson stressed that a successful conclusion to protracted world trade talks was essential to counter current instability in financial markets and restore economic confidence following the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, which is sparking fears of a global economic slowdown (EurActiv 06/09/07).
He added that a deal would lock in current levels of openness against a rise in protectionism as nations seek to insulate their home markets and 'national champions' from outside competition.
"Lowering tariffs and subsidies is important. Doha will do both of those things. But every bit as important is topping up economic confidence and strengthening the rules that bind world trade relationships," he said, adding: "At a time when our economies may be at risk as a result of the turbulence in the financial markets, the Doha world trade round offers insurance against protectionism and recession."
The WTO Doha Round of multilateral negotiations was launched in 2001 in the Qatari capital and has been pursued on and off over the past six years. But it reached a low point in July 2006, when WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy formally suspended negotiations, after members failed to achieve any kind of convergence on reducing farm subsidies and cutting tariffs on industrial and agricultural products.
A number of failed attempts to achieve consensus since then have fuelled speculation that the talks could break down completely.
But Mandelson stressed that the negotiations "have made more progress than people realise". "While everybody has said that the talks are failing, they have in fact been moving forward and we nearly have a deal on the key issues."
In a separate speech in Washington, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab agreed that negotiators have made a lot of progress "beneath the surface in the past year".
However, she said that the key to reaching a deal was whether emerging economies, including India and Brazil, would open their markets in exchange for European and American farm subsidy and tariff cuts (EurActiv 22/06/07). "We're going to know in the next four to six weeks how that's going to play out," she said.
In the meantime, the Commission is continuing efforts to guarantee EU access to third markets even in the event that the Doha Round falls through, notably by pursuing bilateral free trade negotiations with Korea.